13 Hours And The Politics Of Simplicity

Last night I caught Michael Bay's latest, 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers Of Benghazi. As an action film? It's pretty damn good, and while it never quite reaches the giddy heights of The Rock or Pain & Gain, the action sequences are visceral, shot with a great sense of geography, and while the characters are thin, the performances are grounded in reality. Bay knows how to make a great action movie, and he largely succeeds. 

Knowing that the story of what happened in Benghazi has been political fodder for years, I wanted to read some reviews before going in. Michael Bay is not particularly known for his subtlety with the American flag, or with glorifying the military. If someone told me this was going to be a gruelling indictment of Hillary Clinton, it would not have shocked me to hear that. In reality, she isn't mentioned once, and whatever your opinion of her response to the attacks, it's not touched on. Once the attack is over, we get a postscript letting us know what happened to the men who survived the fighting, a reminder that Libya is still in really bad shape, and roll credits.

In response to this, critics have said that the film is "apolitical". It certainly has nothing to say about who Americans ought to vote for in 2016. But that's not the only definition of politics, and removing that from the conversation about the film might lead people not to think about the messages the film is sending. I'm not convinced that's healthy.

In addition to the main conflict between the mercenaries and the attackers coming to kill them and the people they were hired to keep safe, we get an antagonist in the CIA base chief. It's not supposed to be known that the CIA is active in Libya, so when the attacks begin we get a conflict between the CIA chief saying they can't risk exposing what they're doing and the mercenaries who want to save the Libyan ambassador, the risk of an ambush be damned. The mercs go in anyway, save the day, and later on save the CIA chief. He gets a nice moment of redemption telling the mercs that he's proud to know Americans like them, but let's unpack that a bit.

First off, multiple CIA folks have said there was never any question that they would go in to save the Ambassador. The author of the book the film is based on disagrees. It makes for a more interesting story, and I'm not opposed to dramatic liberties. Also, the mercenaries, unquestionably, did the right thing. They put their lives on the line to save others when they were under no obligation to do so. That's as textbook a definition of heroism as you can get, and these guys are capital-H Heroes. I wouldn't dream of taking anything away from them.

Here's the thing, though - the CIA had good reason for wanting to avoid exposure. They were trying to stabilize a country. And if the movie becomes the accepted truth of what went down, we have a narrative where the grunts putting their lives on the line are always right, and the bean-counters would let people die if it meant continuing their work. Again, there's enough ambiguity here that simplifying things, while it makes for a more compelling action movie, doesn't necessarily make for a better understanding of the situation.

I watched the GOP debate on Thursday night, and over and over again I heard the candidates saying things based not on a thorough understanding of any given situation, but on appeals to emotion, facts be damned. Building a wall between the US and Mexico won't do a damn thing to stop illegal immigrants who overstay their visas and take jobs under the table. Banning Muslims... since when does a passport mention your religion? What aspiring terrorist wouldn't ditch the hijab and get her hair done up nicely if they knew it would increase their odds of getting in? Applying tariffs to Chinese imports? A not insignificant chunk of the stuff Americans buy is made there. Tariffs would only increase prices for consumers, whether through a tariff or the realization that making an iPhone in the US doubles its price.

Whatever your political leanings, there are very few challenges in 2016 that are so simple or easy that their solution will be contained in a soundbite. Michael Bay's made a strong action film, and one that wisely stays out of proposing solutions to anything but the simplest of problems - when people are under attack, you step up and you send help. If that's all people take away from the movie, I think it'll be a success. But some of the storytelling choices make that outcome unlikely, and when you've got a lot of voters feeling squeezed and hoping for easy answers... I hope political leaders don't shy away from the challenge of being serious and realistic about the issues facing America this year.

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